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Republicans weren’t sure they could get enough votes to start debate on health care. Here’s how they did it.

July 25, 2017 at 6:50 PM EDT
It was a dramatic day on Capitol Hill as the Senate GOP mustered just enough votes to start debate on a health care bill. With Sen. John McCain returning to cast his vote despite a cancer diagnosis and Vice President Mike Pence acting as the tiebreaker, Republicans advanced their effort to repeal or reform Obamacare. Lisa Desjardins joins Judy Woodruff to discuss what’s next.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The United States Senate tonight has begun debating what to do about Obamacare after weeks of waiting. Republicans finally mustered the votes to proceed in a showdown today, with the aid of a cancer patient and a vice presidential tiebreaker.

Lisa Desjardins begins our coverage.

LISA DESJARDINS: In the Senate today, high-stakes politics with high-volume drama. As the health care vote began, protesters chanted “Kill the bill” and “Shame” from the Senate gallery.

After they were removed, the vote itself was in doubt. Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska voted no. One more no, and the debate would be blocked. All eyes were on Wisconsin Republican Ron Johnson, who didn’t initially vote at all. He spent minutes speaking with GOP Leader Mitch McConnell, before he finally voted yes.

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: On this vote, the yeas 50 and the nays are 50. The Senate, being equally divided, the vice president votes in the affirmative, and the motion is agreed to.

LISA DESJARDINS: Vice President Mike Pence cast the tiebreaking 51st vote.

Majority Leader McConnell:

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, R-Ky., Majority Leader: We have wrestled with this issue. We have watched the consequences of the status quo. The people who sent us here expect us to begin this debate.

LISA DESJARDINS: Adding to the emotion, the return of Arizona Senator John McCain following his diagnosis with brain cancer. He voted for debate.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-Ariz.: I voted for the motion to proceed to allow debate to continue and amendments be offered. I will not vote for this bill as it is today. It’s a shell of a bill right now. We all know that.

LISA DESJARDINS: It’s still far from clear what, if any bill will ultimately emerge from the Senate.

The multiple versions include the original Senate bill, with dramatic reductions in Medicaid and an end to most of Obamacare’s taxes. The Congressional Budget Office said it would leave 22 million more people uninsured by 2026.

Last week came talk of a full repeal bill, with a replacement to be determined later. That would mean 32 million more uninsured if no replacement is ever enacted.

And, finally, what’s called a skinny repeal, ending Obamacare’s individual mandate, but not much else. It would likely add another 15 million uninsured.

Democrats remained uniformly opposed, and their leader, Chuck Schumer, condemned Republican maneuvering.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER, D-N.Y., Minority Leader: Now the best the majority leader’s been able to cook up is a vague plan to do whatever it takes to pass something, anything, to get the bill to a House and Senate conference on health care.

My colleagues, plain and simple, it’s a ruse. The likeliest result of a conference between the House and Senate is full repeal of the Affordable Care Act, or something very close to it.

LISA DESJARDINS: From the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, President Trump hailed the vote to start debate.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I want to congratulate American people, because we’re going to give you great health care. And we’re going to get rid of Obamacare, which should’ve been frankly terminated long Ago. It’s been a disaster for the American people.

LISA DESJARDINS: As for the House, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said, today, his caucus is waiting for the Senate’s next move.

REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY, R-Calif., House Majority Leader: We will be on call. At any time that the Senate is able to pass a health care bill — we have already passed one — that we will call the House back in to finish the job.

LISA DESJARDINS: But when that day might come, if it comes, remains a mystery.

Again, the vote today was just to start debate. Over the next two days and likely nights, we will see scores of amendments and amendment votes on the Senate floor. Any senator can offer an amendment. In fact, Democrat Chris Murphy says, Judy, he has got 100 ready to propose.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Lisa, tell us more about how this is going to work. The Republicans have been saying, for example, there is going to be a vote on straight repeal. When would that be?

LISA DESJARDINS: Right. This is going to be important to follow the process. Votes could happen as soon as tonight, though I’m told by sources in both parties that that’s unlikely at this time.

Here’s how it’s likely to work. We will see two large amendments being proposed near the top of this voting scheme. One will be that straight repeal bill. The other will be some version of the Senate bill that we have seen crafted recently.

Both of those are expected to fail. After that, we will see perhaps a day or many hours of a flurry of different amendments. Those will generally require 60 votes. It will be hard for those to pass.

In the very end, Judy, we will see probably this skinny repeal, a sort of pared-down version of repeal. It will be the Republicans’ last vote. They hope to get 50 on that. It’s not clear yet how they will do that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Lisa, this was quite an extraordinary day, as you just showed in your piece. You were there. What does this drama say about the state of the Senate right now, this debate, and the state of governing?

LISA DESJARDINS: Judy, I have to tell you, it was breathtaking. It was rather unbelievable to be in that Senate today.

For one, as Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, the senators who voted no, cast those opposing votes, they stood up. They were emphatic about their positions.

And at that time, Judy, looking around the chamber, it was clear that Republicans didn’t know if they were going to pass this bill. I looked down below me, and I saw Vice President Pence write on a sheet of paper, “The Senate will be in recess.” That made it clear that they were ready to lose this vote.

When Ron Johnson came in to vote yes, they weren’t sure how it was going to end up. Judy, I think that’s an indication of where we are in general. They don’t know how they finish this. They’re glad to open the process, but much is still in flux. They also don’t know, we don’t know if anyone is willing to compromise, as Senator McCain asked for today on the floor.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So much to watch.

Lisa Desjardins with another long day at the Capitol, thank you, Lisa.

LISA DESJARDINS: My pleasure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we will talk to Montana Senator Jon Tester about the day’s drama right after the news summary.

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